By Bruce Fretts
Updated November 27, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

The Autobiography of Larry Sanders

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Early in his blandly titled mock autobiography, The Autobiography of Larry Sanders, Garry Shandling’s alter egomaniac, Larry Sanders, goes to see his shrink, who complains that he’s never been asked to pen his memoirs. ”Why would anyone ask him to write a book?” Sanders wonders. ”His therapy might pass for comedy, but it was full of dated material that you could hear at any Friars Club roast.” The sad truth is, the same could be said of Confessions.

Originally expected midway through the six-year run of Shandling’s Emmy-winning HBO satire, The Larry Sanders Show, the book (written with David Rensin) was repeatedly pushed back and now appears six months after the sitcom’s send-off. This delay could account for some of the staler references (Rush Limbaugh, Barry Scheck), but not for the corniness of many of the jokes. ”One time I made Kelsey Grammer laugh so hard on the show,” Shandling writes, ”that he peed in my pants.”

You can almost picture Shandling squeezing laughs out of some of these groaners with his wincing delivery (”Many women wanted to sleep with me after the show. Some even wanted to have sex”). But the comedian doesn’t seem to understand that what works on stage doesn’t always translate to the page.

Despite the title, too much of Confessions of a Late Night Talk Show Host concerns Sanders’ life before he became a late-night talk-show host — his miserable childhood (”In second grade, the kids called me ‘four eyes,’ even though I didn’t wear glasses” — ba-dum-bum!), failed first marriage to Francine (oddly, his second wife, Jeannie, is never mentioned), and early stand-up career (with unamusing anecdotes about Gabe Kaplan, whose sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter, Shandling actually wrote for).

Once Sanders finally lands his hosting gig more than halfway through the book, things get a bit more interesting. We learn that producer Artie (Rip Torn) cut his shark’s teeth with Jack Paar and Jackie Gleason, and that fatuous sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) was working as a cruise-ship director when he met Larry. Yet some of this material seems inconsistent, not just with the show but within the book: Sleazy Stevie Grant (Bob Odenkirk), who was fired in the series finale, is inexplicably referred to as both ”my new agent” and ”my ex-agent.”

Occasionally, Confessions parodies celebrity tell-alls with the same fierce wit of the sitcom’s scripts. Sanders admits he was never molested by his parents, observing sharply that ”after I was born, my parents were hardly interested in having sex with each other, let alone me.” But the book crosses the line into cruelty more often than the series ever did — for instance, making fun of Family Feud host Ray Combs’ suicide: ”Ray killed himself after doing six years of that show. Who wouldn’t?”

One of Larry Sanders’ great guessing games was how much of Garry was in Larry. Flipping through this dispiriting volume, you begin to wish Shandling had dropped the Sanders mask and simply written his own autobiography. Frustratingly, every time Shandling starts to flirt with self-revelation (”I was a fat child”), he quickly reverts to tired showbiz gags (”…an agent is not really a person”).

But just when you’re ready to conclude Shandling is suffering from a severe identity crisis, he pulls out the penultimate chapter, a hilariously self-lacerating interview with God that Sanders imagines conducting after his death. ”If only I could have booked him while I was alive,” Sanders regrets. ”But then the truth of the matter is Artie would have bumped him for Jewel.”

Confessions concludes with a picture of Sanders/Shandling in Tahiti and these words: ”I love you all. I’ll be back.” I only hope that’s Garry talking, not Larry. C+

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The Autobiography of Larry Sanders

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